Hypothesis testing - Handbook of Biological Statistics
There are different ways of doing statistics. The technique used by the vast majority of biologists, and the technique that most of this handbook describes, is sometimes called "frequentist" or "classical" statistics. It involves testing a null hypothesis by comparing the data you observe in your experiment with the predictions of a null hypothesis. You estimate what the probability would be of obtaining the observed results, or something more extreme, if the null hypothesis were true. If this estimated probability (the P value) is small enough (below the significance value), then you conclude that it is unlikely that the null hypothesis is true; you reject the null hypothesis and accept an alternative hypothesis.
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Now instead of testing 1000 plant extracts, imagine that you are testing just one. If you are testing it to see if it kills beetle larvae, you know (based on everything you know about plant and beetle biology) there's a pretty good chance it will work, so you can be pretty sure that a P value less than 0.05 is a true positive. But if you are testing that one plant extract to see if it grows hair, which you know is very unlikely (based on everything you know about plants and hair), a P value less than 0.05 is almost certainly a false positive. In other words, if you expect that the null hypothesis is probably true, a statistically significant result is probably a false positive. This is sad; the most exciting, amazing, unexpected results in your experiments are probably just your data trying to make you jump to ridiculous conclusions. You should require a much lower P value to reject a null hypothesis that you think is probably true.
It is important to distinguish between biological null and alternative hypotheses and statistical null and alternative hypotheses. "Sexual selection by females has caused male chickens to evolve bigger feet than females" is a biological alternative hypothesis; it says something about biological processes, in this case sexual selection. "Male chickens have a different average foot size than females" is a statistical alternative hypothesis; it says something about the numbers, but nothing about what caused those numbers to be different. The biological null and alternative hypotheses are the first that you should think of, as they describe something interesting about biology; they are two possible answers to the biological question you are interested in ("What affects foot size in chickens?"). The statistical null and alternative hypotheses are statements about the data that should follow from the biological hypotheses: if sexual selection favors bigger feet in male chickens (a biological hypothesis), then the average foot size in male chickens should be larger than the average in females (a statistical hypothesis). If you reject the statistical null hypothesis, you then have to decide whether that's enough evidence that you can reject your biological null hypothesis. For example, if you don't find a significant difference in foot size between male and female chickens, you could conclude "There is no significant evidence that sexual selection has caused male chickens to have bigger feet." If you do find a statistically significant difference in foot size, that might not be enough for you to conclude that sexual selection caused the bigger feet; it might be that males eat more, or that the bigger feet are a developmental byproduct of the roosters' combs, or that males run around more and the exercise makes their feet bigger. When there are multiple biological interpretations of a statistical result, you need to think of additional experiments to test the different possibilities.
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When you reject a null hypothesis, there's a chance that you're making a mistake. The null hypothesis might really be true, and it may be that your experimental results deviate from the null hypothesis purely as a result of chance. In a sample of 48 chickens, it's possible to get 17 male chickens purely by chance; it's even possible (although extremely unlikely) to get 0 male and 48 female chickens purely by chance, even though the true proportion is 50% males. This is why we never say we "prove" something in science; there's always a chance, however miniscule, that our data are fooling us and deviate from the null hypothesis purely due to chance. When your data fool you into rejecting the null hypothesis even though it's true, it's called a "false positive," or a "Type I error." So another way of defining the P value is the probability of getting a false positive like the one you've observed, if the null hypothesis is true.
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Usually, the null hypothesis is boring and the alternative hypothesis is interesting. For example, let's say you feed chocolate to a bunch of chickens, then look at the sex ratio in their offspring. If you get more females than males, it would be a tremendously exciting discovery: it would be a fundamental discovery about the mechanism of sex determination, female chickens are more valuable than male chickens in egg-laying breeds, and you'd be able to publish your result in Science or Nature. Lots of people have spent a lot of time and money trying to change the sex ratio in chickens, and if you're successful, you'll be rich and famous. But if the chocolate doesn't change the sex ratio, it would be an extremely boring result, and you'd have a hard time getting it published in the Eastern Delaware Journal of Chickenology. It's therefore tempting to look for patterns in your data that support the exciting alternative hypothesis. For example, you might look at 48 offspring of chocolate-fed chickens and see 31 females and only 17 males. This looks promising, but before you get all happy and start buying formal wear for the Nobel Prize ceremony, you need to ask "What's the probability of getting a deviation from the null expectation that large, just by chance, if the boring null hypothesis is really true?" Only when that probability is low can you reject the null hypothesis. The goal of statistical hypothesis testing is to estimate the probability of getting your observed results under the null hypothesis.